Saturday, 23 October 2021

Book review: The Saving I Need, Poetry Chapel Vol. 1, David Tensen and Friends

I don’t usually put book reviews on the blog anymore – see Patreon for reviews – but I was contacted by a Facebook friend seeking help with a new book, so this time made an exception. The ebook is a tenth the cost of the hard copy version.

The idea of faith is so distant from normal conversation except when it’s rejected that reading this book might come as a shock. It’s a sign of the nature of the human animal. Because religion is so powerful when it’s weaponised, in the West it’s largely been relegated to the private sphere and while it therefore should be the type of subject you meet with when reading poetry – a form of art particularly suitable to reflecting thoughts and feelings within the individual – a general sense of opprobrium directed at religion tends to mean that it gets rejected even before any claim it might make to harbouring the truth is publicly voiced. So judging it to be damaging is seen by most as a virtue. 

David Tensen efficiently shows why this is not true, his poems containing enough of the divine to tell you that not taking things for granted seems to be a gift of whatever brand of Creator lords it over the church he attends. If this is God, then maybe I should subscribe. What we’re told to privilege – giving their due weight to otherwise ephemeral things – is what we possibly cannot (or won’t) practise because it’s considered devout to do so. This is a pity. I was entranced by the way Tensen draws both humour and sadness out of small events. His vigorous imagination is equal to the task of showing us inside the house of his belief, a place where each object, each idea, is cherished as unique and special. 

If only we were more like this on social media. If religion makes you able to write poetry of this calibre, then I yearn to worship. Some poems have a more formal aspect as they employ capital letters at the beginning of each line, though I wasn’t able to discover a method behind this design. Other poems are like confession – something private and sacred – and each line starts, as though part of a sentence the previous line began, with a lower-case letter. Variety is the rule in this sense, but it’s also what makes reading Tensen’s book so compelling. 

Rather than burdened by his feelings, I felt free to think my own thoughts, and my own feelings quickly followed on their footsteps. 

Like Dante following Virgil into the underworld I let Tensen direct my mind into worlds I’ve not been able to imagine by myself. It was a bit like reading the poems of R.S. Thomas, a Welshman who was an Anglican priest and who spent those parts of his life when he wasn’t writing patriotic verses writing verses about God. I even forgave Tensen for capitalising the personal pronoun when need arose but then found that the remainder of the poems in the collection – those written by the poet’s friends – gave further glimpses into a buried world. 

It’s not everyday that people will open themselves up to the view of strangers, and I was reminded of when, as a young man, I worked on a poetry magazine. 

This section of the book is more than interesting. You get passion, as with the poems of Andrew Charles Adair and Brian Bucks, you get humour, as with Abigail Bucks. You get Carly Caprio’s or Jessica Stevens’ sadness. You get Victoria Kuttainen’s sense of hope and Jessica Mussro’s sense of awe. Nicole Walker and Tineke Zeimer show us how to notice small things and Nicole Fisher describes the magic well when she says she tries to “find beauty and hope even during the darker uncertain moments of life”. As Kaelan Kiernan writes in ‘Fire and Rain’:

You hide diamonds in every corner,
Under the most surprising rocksand
I want to search forever to find them all.

Caprio’s introduction describes the importance of her poetry practice, and for the poets in the latter half of this book from the Poetry Chapel, its members (where location is declared) shown to be a loose confederation scattered across the globe in Australia, the United States, and Great Britain, it’s this practical aspect of the craft that reminded me of Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful film, ‘Paterson’, which is about a poet who drives a bus for a living. I wrote in my review of that 2016 movie, “the things that do happen seem to have a meaning beyond their immediate significance.” 

Tensen sometimes reverts to a political mode, so you can on occasion get the appearance of ideas that might more commonly populate Twitter, but this deviation from the narrow path that leads to bigger ideas is vanishingly rare. On social media Paterson’s practice could do some good, you think, and people like Franki who contributed to ‘The Saving I Need’ prove the point.


Andrew Charles Adair said...

Hi Mathew, so happy that you reviewed this selection and did not expect the breadth, width and depth of the review. Thank you for looking at David’s and others work (mostly David’s) from so many angles. You’ve certainly given me a different perspective and a few good ways to understand its place in the world at the moment. Appreciate your growing erudition and generosity in undertaking this task. I’ll have have to check out some more of your work. All the best Andrew Adair. PS last time time I went to Eastern Suburbs and specifically Parsley bay was a few years ago. Last Cranbrook school reunion was 2009. Interesting where some past school colleagues have gone..

Matthew da Silva said...

Andrew -- thanks for your comments. I love writing about movies, books and anything cultural. A hangover from my youth, I suppose. I went to the last get-together but the next one was cancelled due to Covid. Were you planning on going? I think they might revive the idea now that lockdown's over ...

Jessica M. said...

Matthew, what a thoughtful and whole-heart-ed reflection on our book! The breadth and generosity of your reflections is truly humbling. Thank you for the gift of your time spent reading, considering, and connecting.

Western Nebraska Poet said...

Hi Matthew, thanks so much for taking the time to provide the review. I greatly appreciate your appraisal of the book and your honest comments. - Brian Bucks

Matthew da Silva said...

Thanks Jessica and Brian for yr comments. It really makes a difference to hear what people think about what I write. I appreciate the time you've both taken to leave your words here. This is why I made the review: because a response matters. It validates us to hear another person speak about what we think. I've been thinking of writing another reivew, perhaps to focus more on an individual poem, or a series of poems. Most of my reviews, like this one, are quite short. What do u think of my idea?

Andrew Charles Adair said...

I like the idea about validation and affirmation Mathew, and I think doing reviews on individual groups of poems or individual poems is a good progression. Certainly some of the poems invite this treatment, especially if they have touched you on some way or you find them relevant. I would pursue that course, it might unearth something new…

Andrew Charles Adair said...

Just looking at your comments here Mathew. I think it’s a good idea to pursue reviewing an individual group of poems or even an individual poem. You don’t know what you might unearth in the way of insight or reflection that could really help the other author. I would go for it !